“How can I avoid mistakes when speaking English?”
I’ve been asked this question so many times I’ve lost count!
Most of us have such a complex relationship with making mistakes.
When I moved to Buenos Aires and first had the opportunity to speak Spanish on a regular basis, I was reluctant to actually do so. ?
I knew if I opened my mouth, my accent would reveal that I was not from Argentina.
I just wanted to fit in, and I didn’t want to draw any extra attention to my “foreignness.”
When I did decide to speak, I tried to use perfectly structured, grammatically correct sentences.
It took a long time to formulate my thoughts, and I did NOT radiate confidence or charisma.
Over the years, I’ve stopped caring as much about making mistakes, and that’s one of the reasons I now speak Spanish fluently, confidently, and quickly.
I now focus on communication and connection over perfectionism.
Why You May Be Afraid of Making Mistakes
Where does this fear of making mistakes come from anyway?
If you’re highly motivated to achieve academic and professional success, you’ve probably learned that mistakes can keep you from what you want.
If you make too many mistakes on an entrance exam, you might not be able to attend your ideal university.
If you mess up your response in a job interview, you might not get your dream job.
Here in the US, making a simple typo on your resume or cover letter can mean that it gets thrown out, even if your skills are ideal for the position. ?
“Attention to detail” is highly rated as a job skill.
No wonder we agonize over making mistakes.
We’ve learned that mistakes affect how people think of us – and for some reason, they can also determine how we think about ourselves.
But we’re only human. We’re designed to make mistakes.
Mistakes are how we grow.
Think about when you learned to swim, ride a bike, kick a ball, play an instrument, draw, make a cake, or paint.
Your first attempts were probably not very good. You had to learn through making a million mistakes.
And with practice, you may have developed a skill that you still use today. ?
Making Mistakes When Learning a Language
One of the reasons learning to speak a language can be so stressful is that it requires us to share our first attempts with other people, rather than practicing in the privacy of our homes.
Whether you’re practicing with other non-native speakers in the classroom or trying to ask for directions to the bus station, you’re being observed by other people. It feels uncomfortable.
But if you really think about it, we make mistakes CONSTANTLY when speaking our native languages!
I mispronounce words, stumble over words, make illogical statements, and forget what I’m saying all the time.
(In fact, that’s one of the reasons I like doing live videos – you get to experience these mistakes with me in real time.)
So why do we worry about making mistakes when speaking another language?
Here’s the truth: the only way to get to competency and eventually fluency is through practice. We have to make peace with our mistakes.
If you’re making mistakes, that’s a good thing!
Mistakes mean you’re making progress.
Reducing the Mistakes You Make
Before we talk about embracing mistakes, let’s talk about what you can do in order to avoid them.
Remember, a mistake is when you say something that’s incorrect or inaccurate.
If you want to continue to consistently improve how you sound when speaking English and reduce your mistakes, you have to really make this your priority.
You have to consider whether there’s better or more appropriate vocabulary word you can use in order to express yourself.
You want to put some time and effort into speaking clearly and confidently.
You want to continue to grow and seek out new language, new expressions, and new ways of communicating.
All of these strategies will help you avoid mistakes.
In order to fix them, you need to really be self-aware.
From time to time, you may actually want to record yourself in order to see if you’re using English correctly.
You may decide to invest in an evaluation where a professional can tell you exactly what you’re doing wrong.
(Sometimes people like to ask their friends, but friends are very forgiving and they may not hear all the mistakes that you’re making. They may just notice obvious things like grammar or vocabulary.)
What You’re Actually Worried About
But let’s be honest with each other: when someone says to me, “I want to avoid making mistakes when speaking English,” they’re not talking about making grammar mistakes, using the wrong word, or pronouncing things incorrectly.
They’re not concerned about the technical mistakes, they’re concerned about how they sound when speaking.
They don’t want to sound foolish or silly when they’re producing English verbally in conversation.
Many non-native speakers are concerned about making embarrassing mistakes during the conversation, saying something culturally inappropriate, or using an offensive word.
They’re worried about not being able to express themselves as fluently as they do in their native language, or having to correct themselves or say things another way.
Plan to Make Mistakes When Speaking
I always remind my clients that the more advanced you become, the more aware you are of the mistakes you’re making.
You’ll always be discovering new things that you need to improve.
But instead of avoiding making mistakes, I suggest you plan to make mistakes and try to make more of them.
Instead of freezing if you say something wrong, learn to recover and keep going once you make a mistake.
That’s what native speakers do.
Being prepared for mistakes will help you feel more confident when they inevitably occur!
Learn the expressions you can use to restate and rephrase your idea and keep going, and you’ll actually sound more fluent.
If you’re making mistakes in conversation, that means you’re trying to express yourself more eagerly and enthusiastically.
You’re going to make mistakes as you move into fluency because that means you’re speaking more.
When you make mistakes in the middle of a conversation, that means you’re probably connecting with the other person.
Mistakes are part of a real, active, natural conversation in English.
Most people will be listening to your ideas, so redirecting their attention to what you meant to say will keep the conversation flowing.
Expressions to Recover from Making Mistakes
What makes you sound more natural in a conversation is being able to recover and keep the conversation going.
Your goal is to correct yourself in a fluent-sounding way.
Use one of these expressions before restating your idea or rephrasing your thoughts using better words.
- What I mean is…
- What I meant was…
- Let me put that another way.
- What I’m saying is…
- What I’m trying to say is…
- Let me rephrase that.
- Let me try that again.
- One more time. (said with a smile!)
Admitting that you made a mistake is shows the other person your confidence when speaking English.
Rather than giving up the conversation, you’re able to acknowledge that you made a mistake but not let it stop you from talking.
When you help the conversation keep going, you make the mistake seem insignificant.
Learning to handle these mistakes with grace will help you feel more confident when speaking. Trying to avoid mistakes completely will just stress you out.
Next time you make a mistake, instead of getting embarrassed or ashamed, admit the mistake.
Then use these expressions to fix what you said and simply keep going with the conversation!
I hope you feel more confident about recovering from your mistakes after this lesson and that you have much more productive and effective conversations in English.
Now it’s your turn! How have you handled making mistakes previously? How has your perspectives on mistakes changed after this lesson? Leave a comment and share your experience.
Learning essential conversation skills can help prepare you to handle conversations in English. I encourage you to check out this lesson on clarifying what you mean.